It strikes me that there are two important themes in St. Matthew’s Gospel account (2:1-12) of the Epiphany; one is wonder and the other is change in direction. Both are connected with the Magi, the Astrologers, the Wise Men. Both are connected with our own journeys, our own pilgrimages through life.
The Wise Men came to Bethlehem thinking high and mystic thoughts, moved by what is extraordinary and knowing that something not at all obvious was touching our world. Indeed they reflect much of the content of the infancy narratives of the birth of Christ, narratives filled with mystic dreams, inner voices and visions. So here they came, these three Wise Men named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar according to medieval legend, hearing whisperings of a Savior that had been born. It is to be noted that they were not Jews and yet they, too, were expecting a Savior to be born among men for all mankind.
What, then, of our own sense of wonder, our own quest that goes beyond what is obvious, objective, and scientifically verifiable, our own quest that goes beyond mere curiosity and problem solving? Do we allow ourselves wonder, to stand in awe and wonderment over the entrance of God in Christ entering our human life, entering our ordinary lives in an extra-ordinary way?
We are trained to relate to what is obvious and objectively verifiable. Our educational system trains us to measure, to quantify, to formulate, and to control. Budgets and bottom lines govern our decisions. But what, then, of songs and visions? What of inner voices and dreams? What of insight and wonder? What, then, of faith? There is much that surrounds us that can fill us with wonder, wonder that can turn us into pilgrim mystics and wanderers. I once heard about a rancher who lived near the Grand Canyon. He said he had seen it once and didn’t need to see it again. “It would be a heck of a place to lose a cow,” he remarked. He was living in a darkness that didn’t allow him to see the presence of God. He was blind to wonderment. For him the Grand Canyon was simply a gash in the earth’s crust.
God put a holy light in the sky over Bethlehem, a different sort of light, a light in which we can see a greater reality than that which is apparent to our eyes. God’s light allows us to see what is not simply obvious, a light that allows us to behold in wonderment realities beyond those that this world offers us. Christianity calls us to see things that way, to look beyond what is obvious in our neighbor and to love others in spite of what is apparently wrong about them, to love them in spite of their faults, failures, and sins. Mother Teresa of India was able to see God in the filthy, dying wretches she picked up out of the gutters of Calcutta. Her example calls us to see what is extra-ordinary in ordinary humanity, what is divine and hidden within what is human, sometimes all too human.
Such, then, is the first theme I find in today’s Gospel account. It bids us join the astrologers, those Magi on their quest, and to enter into an inner vision to see what is mystical in human life, particularly to find the hidden presence of God in every human being. The consequences of that vision lead us into the second theme, namely a changed pattern in living out our lives. The Gospel tells us that the Wise Men went home a different way. We can presume that they moved from one version in living and converted into a different route in their life journeys, travelling now towards their heavenly home. They stand as mystical and happy symbols of our own life journeys now that God has come into our lives. The Wise Men gave their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh while prostrating themselves in the presence of the ineffable, the mystical, and the mysterious. Life for them was changed; its patterns were altered, their routes through life were now different. God had come to man and the old ways of men living without God, or their old ways of setting their own paths to God, were now obsolete. Now there was a new dispensation in the ways of religion. They could no longer live under the King Herods of this world.
Because of God’s Epiphany, this revelation of God’s presence, God’s love now incarnate, suddenly all who dare to look, to wonder, and to make the pilgrimage, see things in a new light. God Himself lives now among us and reveals to us what life is meant to be and can be. In Jesus Christ we have seen Love. We have seen courage. We have seen unselfishness. Despite all of our pretended pleasures, our cynicism, and our frivolity, in spite of all our trafficking in the obvious, something deep inside us has been touched. Something has entered our elemental selves. We are haunted by a Ghostly presence, forever haunted by the knowledge that no matter how badly we mess things up, and no matter how much we may suffer evil at the hands of others, life can be lived in a different way. God has given us a different route to follow no matter how many corrupt Herods we may have to suffer on our journey back home to God our Father in heaven.
If Jesus Christ were never born, if God had never come to us, then we would be left with attempting discover various way of getting ourselves to Him, inventing our own various religions in order to find Him. If Jesus Christ had never been born in Bethlehem then we would be left to the mercy of every seer and prophet that comes down the road. If God had never, in Christ, entered into our humanity then we would really be left in our miseries, victimized and tyrannized by all of this world’s Herods who would manipulate and control us as if we were worth nothing at all, as if there was nothing sacred or divine within us. We would be left to be measured, quantified, formulated, manipulated, and controlled by any and everyone who would see us only superficially and as merely useful.
But as it is, Christ has come; divinity has become one with our humanity, and there is now something precious, mystical, and divine deep within us. We are God’s. We are not the pawns of any king, potentate, or political party. We are visionaries, wanderers, pilgrims, and poets. We are all equally precious to God be we male or female, Jew or Gentile, free men or slaves, Americans or aliens, educated or uneducated, heroic or ordinary.
Footsteps on the shores of Galilee still softly echo in our ears. Their weight is felt on our continent 2,000 years later. Their Ghostly presence has changed our inner world. Our physical eyes have never seen Him because He cannot be contained. But our inner eyes, our insight, can catch glimpses of Him. In awe and wonder we can, like the Magi, journey on pilgrimage to where His God’s heavenly star marks His presence in our world. We are all of us, if we allow ourselves, able to be poets and dreamers, mystical persons who are pilgrims and prophets in a dark world devoid of the spiritual.
It is we, in our day, who are the Wise Men journeying back home to heaven, now by a different route, a route that is unknown to our secular world. For we know that life can no longer be lived as if God did not exist. We know that darkness and evil exist along this world’s ways. We know that death awaits all who live in ways not directed toward our only true home, the home of our heavenly Father who, like the Prodigal Son’s father, watches and waits for us and who comes to us on our path back to Him. We know now, haunted as we are by God’s Ghostly Presence, that the path through life, the pattern of life we are called to live, the route of our life’s pilgrimage, has been on this day of Epiphany eternally altered.
One final note: You cannot, of course, make a pilgrimage to Bethlehem but you can go to a quiet place in your home, in a church¸ or even where you work, a place where you can be alone with the Lord and there spend some time alone with God. From the jaws of each day’s busy-ness snatch a few moments of time alone with the Lord to thank Him for His gifts to you and your loved ones. Let your mind and your heart give God not gold¸ or frankincense, or myrrh, but your loving attention. Give God the gift of your appreciation of His presence in your life. He has given you His life; give Him from yours a bit of time in awe and wonder. Following in the footsteps of the Magi it is the wise thing to do.
May the year 2011 find us together as companions traveling along that Way, each of us bearing our own particular gifts to the God who now abides in the mangers of our hearts.